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Hunting, not deforestation, biggest threat to Southeast Asian biodiversity: Study

  • The authors of the study, published last month in the journal Conservation Biology, examined the impacts of hunting on vertebrate populations in the region by conducting an extensive review of scientific papers in local journals and reports of governmental and nongovernmental agencies.
  • They found evidence that animal populations have declined sharply at multiple sites across Southeast Asia since 1980, with many species now completely wiped out in substantial portions of their former ranges.
  • The authors of the study argue that, in addition to improved enforcement measures and better management of protected areas, efforts to engage hunters and manage wildlife populations through sustainable hunting practices are urgently needed.

Deforestation and forest degradation are typically considered to be the most significant threats to tropical biodiversity, but a new study finds that hunting is “by far” the most severe immediate threat to the survival of Southeast Asia’s endangered vertebrates.

The authors of the study, published last month in the journal Conservation Biology, examined the impacts of hunting on vertebrate populations in the region by conducting an extensive review of scientific papers in local journals and reports of governmental and nongovernmental agencies. They found evidence that animal populations have declined sharply at multiple sites across Southeast Asia since 1980, with many species now completely wiped out in substantial portions of their former ranges.

“Tropical Southeast Asia (Northeast India, Indochina, Sundaland, Philippines) is experiencing a wildlife crisis,” the authors of the study write. Large areas of natural forest across the region are nearly devoid of large animals, except for a few hunting-tolerant species, they add. Previous estimates have held that only one percent of the land area in tropical Asia still supports an intact fauna of mammals, but the authors write that their findings suggest that “In reality the situation is far worse.”

Rhett Harrison of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Yunnan, China, the lead author of the study, told Mongabay that current strategies for conservation are failing to address the problem of rampant hunting in Southeast Asia. For instance, the international conservation community is overly focused on international trade, which is diverting attention away from the problem because most of the hunted animals are consumed locally, he said.

Harrison and his co-authors, a group of experts that have worked in all the countries covered in the study, note that causes of recent overhunting include improved access to forests and markets due to cheaper outboard motors and motorbikes; improved hunting technology, such as modern guns, wire snares, mist nets, and torches, which has reduced the skill required to hunt; and escalating demand for wild meat, wild animals as pets, and wildlife-derived medicinal products as transport infrastructure has improved and affluence in urban areas has increased.

Hunters often take common species like pigs or rats for their own consumption, while rarer species are taken opportunistically. Surplus meat and commercially valuable products are usually sold.

There is also widespread targeted hunting of high-value species, the researchers write in the study: “Tigers (Panthera tigris) and other large carnivores are killed for their skins, penises, and bones, rhinoceros (Rhinoceros sondaicus and Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) for their horn, elephants for their ivory, bears (Helarctus malayanus and Ursus thibetanus) and gaur (Bos guarus) for their gall bladders, langurs (Presbytis spp. and Trachypithecus spp.) for their Bezoar stones, and horned ungulates as trophies.”

But Harrison told Mongabay that hunting is generally non-specific in the region due to the use of shotguns and snares, which allow for a large number of species to be targeted indiscriminately. And as larger species become rare, hunters begin to target smaller and smaller species.

“Hunting and over-exploitation of wildlife is a general problem,” Harrison said. “But depending on factors such as how effectively gun control is implemented, methods and favoured target species do vary. For example, Indonesia has quite strict gun enforcement, so snares are widely employed and song bird hunting is particularly rampant. In Borneo, most people employ shotguns and hunt for food — but the levels of off take are completely unsustainable.”

Harrison and his co-authors conclude that, “as currently practiced, hunting cannot be considered sustainable anywhere in the region, and in most places enforcement of protected-area and protected-species legislation is weak.”

Meanwhile, Harrison and team found that the failure of government agencies and the international conservation community to appreciate the scale and extent of overhunting and to respond with appropriate measures to combat the problem “continues to be a major impediment to addressing the wildlife crisis in Southeast Asia.”

The team argues that, in addition to improved enforcement measures and better management of protected areas, efforts to engage hunters and manage wildlife populations through sustainable hunting practices are urgently needed. “Unless there is a step change in efforts to reduce wildlife exploitation to sustainable levels, the region will likely lose most of its iconic species, and many others besides, within the next few years,” they write.

Wild pig trapped in a snare in Indonesia. Photo by Rhett Butler.

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